Better players enliven race


For years, WIS(TV) ruled local airwaves in the Columbia, S.C., DMA. As the only VHF station on the dial, its stronger signal and stronger newscasts dominated. Local TV writer Doug Nye described the market as "the epitome of monotony."

Today, notes Mel Stebbins, who has been general manager at the station since the summer, it's not so easy. Cable and satellite selection has reduced WIS's VHF advantage. Moreover, he acknowledges, significant improvements at other local stations—CBS affil WLTX(TV), Fox affil WACH(TV) and ABC affil WOLO-TV—have intensified the race considerably.

"We're still No. 1," Stebbins says, "but it's close in the local-news race, particularly in the demos. The other stations are doing a pretty good job, putting out much better newscasts than they used to." Despite the slippage, the station's position was strong enough for longtime Cosmos-Liberty General Manager Stebbins to drop several market sizes and move from Toledo to Columbia. "Traditionally," he explains, "WIS is our top station in cash flow."

But when Gannett bought WLTX(TV) two years ago, that station's new general manager, Rich O'Dell, breathed new life into the marketplace by overhauling the CBS affiliate, giving it a new look and revamping its newscast. Since then, WLTX has been a contender and has won a few newscast time slots, as well as numerous awards for its news.

"We're a Gannett station," says O'Dell. "That means news." Gannett pumped money into its acquisition, virtually gutted the old facility and adding a new newsroom and control room.

Although the market is down in both local and national spots, notes WACH GM Scott McBride, it's not as bad as in most of the country. All stations in South Carolina's capital city are looking to a good political year in 2002, with a gubernatorial and U.S. Senate race.